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Gaviña Family Celebrates 150-Year Family Coffee History

Gaviña and Sons
The Gaviña family in the 1980s.

Gaviña and Sons Inc., makers of Don Francisco’s Coffee and Café La Llave Espresso, will celebrate its 53rd year of roasting coffee in Los Angeles in 2020, but the company’s history goes back more than a century and a half.

“Our family has been in the coffee business 150 years,” said Lisette Gaviña Lopez, executive marketing director and licensed Q Grader for F. Gaviña and Sons, in an interview with The Shelby Report’s VP-West Bob Reeves. A Q Grader is coffee taster certified by the Coffee Quality Institute and is similar to a wine sommelier. “Coffee is the only thing that we do,” she said.

Her great-grandfather and his brother, José Maria and Ramón Gaviña, left the Basque region of Spain for Cuba, seeking adventure. They first planted tobacco in Cuba, but after a hurricane wiped out their crop, the brothers moved toward the center of the island where the soil and elevation were perfect for growing coffee, Gaviña Lopez said.

The family left Cuba for political reasons in 1960 and returned to Spain.

“It was pretty clear to our grandparents that things weren’t going to change in Cuba, and they were just waiting in Spain to see what would happen,” Gaviña Lopez said.

Her grandfather, Francisco, had studied in the United States at a business college in Macon, Georgia. She said he knew if they were going to start their lives over, America was the place to do so. He moved to Florida and soon was followed by his middle son, Pedro. With the influx of immigrants from Cuba at the time, following the Bay of Pigs invasion, they were unable to find work. They traveled out West to visit some cousins and were able to find work in California in 1963. Francisco Gaviña was 60 years old at the time.


Starting over

The obstacles faced by the Gaviña family included a different language and a different culture. Coffee, for them, was espresso, but most people in Los Angeles in the 1960s drank light roast coffee. At that time, about the only people who knew anything about espresso were the Italian immigrants in the city and the few Cubans who had immigrated to Los Angeles, Gaviña Lopez said.

“Can you imagine losing everything and having to reinvent yourself at 60?” she said. “That’s a huge decision to make.”

At first it was all about survival—putting a roof over their heads, making sure there was enough food to eat and seeing that the kids were in school. They all worked, and the money went to her grandmother, who was the head of the family and managed all the money.

But having been born on a coffee plantation, it was her grandfather, Francisco Gaviña, who actually knew about cultivating and processing coffee. He was the one who had started roasting coffee in the 1930s in Cuba, while the Great Depression in America was happening.

While working as a porter in a restaurant in Montebello, he worked to get back into the coffee business, which was all he had ever known.

“He was making connections with people, like green coffee brokers, who could maybe help him source coffee,” Gaviña Lopez said said.

Francisco Gaviña got to know a salesman from Farmer Bros. Coffee, who helped him understand the local market and how to get started roasting again. Through the salesman, he discovered an opportunity to buy a small roaster.

“Our family went down to Carlsbad with a rented truck, dismantled the roaster, put it on the truck and assembled it in an 1,100-s.f. commercial space just down the street,” Gaviña Lopez said. “That’s how we started. We started catering to the Cuban community in LA. Then we started learning about other ethnic groups like the Middle Eastern community. They have a very particular blend and roast profile that they like. And then, the Vietnamese community, having a French influence, they like French style high-quality coffee that’s darkly roasted. We started custom roasting for these ethnic groups.”


Branching out

After finding success in those markets, F. Gaviña and Sons discovered a “huge opportunity” in the grocery stores. The company came out with whole bean coffee in a bag—its Don Francisco’s Coffee brand—which was almost revolutionary at the time when most store shelves contained light roast canned coffee.

“That was the beginning of the gourmet coffee revolution that happened when consumers were demanding higher quality coffees, single origin,” Gaviña Lopez said, adding that the Don Francisco’s Coffee bags featured a one-way valve, which helped keep the coffee fresher.

Don Francisco’s Coffee also was one of the first brands to bring flavored coffees to the grocery store and still has a very strong position with flavored coffees, Gaviña Lopez said.

Now, in addition to the Don Francisco’s Coffee brand, the company also has what Gaviña Lopez calls “a jewel of a brand,” Café La Llave, which is an espresso brand focused on the Hispanic market; Gaviña Gourmet Coffee, which is more of a wholesale, house brand mostly sold through cafés and restaurants; and a private label, Jose’s Gourmet Coffee, which is a dedicated brand in Costco. Gaviña also is a supplier of coffee to more than 3,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the western U.S.

The Don Francisco’s Coffee brand also is distributed primarily in the West, while Café La Llave is found in the Northeast and Southeast, predominantly in Miami, Florida.

“We believe, with all the independent data, that we are the No. 1 brand in Miami,” Gaviña Lopez said. “That brand is very strong where espresso coffee is dominant. It’s growing by leaps and bounds. There’s a lot of immigration coming into Florida and up the East Coast, and this is the type of coffee that these communities are looking for.”

The company continues to be run by the Gaviña family, with Pedro Gaviña, one of Francisco’s sons, as president. Gaviña Lopez said nine members of the fourth generation, including her, also work for the company. She said it’s rare to have a fourth generation involved in a family business.

“We’ve all grown up with a really strong sense of pride around where we come from and who we are,” Gaviña Lopez said.


First-class facility

All of the roasting and packing is done at the 240,000-s.f. company facility in Vernon, an industrial city just south of downtown LA. The facility is the company’s fourth location and the manufacturing plant was designed by Pedro Gaviña.

“It’s all state-of-the-art equipment. We are always investing in new equipment, so we have our own single-serve cup lines,” Gaviña Lopez said, adding that this year the company launched its newest innovation—espresso capsules under the Don Francisco’s Coffee and Café La Llave Espresso brands. “Those espresso capsules are compatible with the Nespresso original line machines. The patent has now expired, and it has opened up the marketplace for brands like ours. It’s a fantastic product. You pop a capsule in the machine, and you press a button and have the most perfect espresso.”

She said there are four distinctive blends under the Don Francisco’s Coffee brand and regular and decaf under Café La Llave.

Gaviña Lopez also said two years ago the company opened its first brick-and-mortar coffee shop in downtown LA, called Don Francisco’s Coffee Casa Cubana.

“It’s the first time we’ve had our own location where we can actually serve coffee the way that we like to make it,” she said. “Our Cuban heritage definitely comes alive through the café.”

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